Is anything more stressful than giving a high-stakes speech or presentation? And is there another situation where you feel less equipped to handle that stress?
What would you give to be able to stay calm and focused instead?
Great communicators don't just speak--they perform. To join their ranks, learn how to succeed with audiences through my Insights article, "The 6 Rules of Effective Public Speaking."
Why Public Speaking Stress May Be Your Friend
This weekend's Wall Street Journal brings surprising news: trying to calm yourself in a high-stress situation may be the wrong strategy, and that getting excited may be the wiser choice. The findings are included in an article by health psychologist Dr. Kelly McGonigal titled “Stressed Out? Embrace It.”
But is this tactic really so surprising? As an actor and speech coach specializing in helping professionals overcome speech anxiety, I’ve been giving similar advice for many years. And I’d be surprised in turn if acting coaches and other stage performance experts haven’t espoused the same approach for centuries.
What makes Dr. McGonigal’s article worth reading is evidence of “a growing body of research [finding that] the best way to handle stress is to embrace it rather than to minimize it.”
Stressed Out? — Learn How to Energize Your Public Speaking!
The author cites an experiment conducted by Harvard Business School professor Alison Wood Brooks, for instance, the results of which were included in a research paper published in 2014 in the Journal of Experimental Psychology. A group of people about to give a speech was advised to tell themselves, “I am calm”; while another group was told to tell themselves, “I am excited.” Those who told themselves they were excited reported more confidence, and observers rated those same people as more competent.
As I put it to my clients and trainees who have speech anxiety: our stress is energizing us tremendously. We tend to view that energy in negative terms—but why not think of it as excitingus instead? The physiological reactions involved—increased heart rate, physical activation, and pupil dilation “betraying mental and emotional commotion,” the need to get up and dosomething—come into play in both a stressful and pleasurable response.
Think of your reaction as rocket fuel injecting you with a performance booster!
Your Stress Is a Sign that You Care About Your Audience
Picture yourself about to give an all-important presentation, but with no stress anywhere in sight. You’re completely relaxed, and so mellow that nothing activates you at all. You’re not worried; in fact, you’ve barely thought about the upcoming speech at all.
You already see a disaster in the making, don’t you? It’s easy thinking along these lines to understand how your stress level over wanting to do well is in fact helping you to reach that goal.
In other words: you’re stressed because you truly want to give your audience something of value. So simply remind yourself of that fact. It’s part of the same lesson that teaches us not to put ourselves in the center of the speaker-audience dynamic. We’re there to give a speech, not to take anything from our listeners! The more you care about your audience’s needs—both in preparation and delivery—the more you’ll activate yourself in terms of getting ready to meet those needs.
Does that create stress? Sure. But it’s also almost a guarantee that you’ll be a conscientious and honest presenter.
Two Other Important Tools for Dealing with Stress as a Speaker
The experiment mentioned above along with the other research cited in the McGonigal article is a reminder of how your stress is actually helping you to succeed. Experiencing stress as a speaker may be uncomfortable. But from the audience’s point of view, a highly activated speaker will almost certainly be more interesting than that unconcerned presenter I profiled above.
In terms of your overall accomplishments in public speaking, however, directing your stress into productive channels is only part of the picture. In my work at The Genard Method of performance-based public speaking training in Boston, I also focus on two other important areas: the body in performance; and focus, mindfulness, and presence.
I’ve written many blogs on these two topics, all of which you can find in the “Browse Blog Topics” section on this site. Here are a few that you may find particularly helpful:
- Body Language Can Help Eliminate Your Speaking Fear
- Speech Anxiety: Use “Grounding” to Look and Feel More Confident
FOCUS AND MINDFULNESS
- Focus and Mindfulness Exercises for Fear of Public Speaking
- How to Overcome Fear of Public Speaking through Positive Thinking
Also see my essential cheat sheet, “10 Ways to Stay Fully Focused when Speaking.”
Wishing you energized and excited speeches and presentations!
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 Kelly McGonigal, “Stressed Out? Embrace It,” The Wall Street Journal, May 16-17, 2015, C3.
 McGonigal, “Stressed Out?”
 Joss Fong, “Eye-Opener: Why Do Pupils Dilate in Response to Emotional States?” Scientific American, December 7, 2012. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/eye-opener-why-do-pupils-dialate/